A Window on the Past – New London Historical Society

brBy Susan Nye

Unlike those of many small towns, New London’s Historical Society is more than a room with a few old documents and musty, dusty artifacts—much more. Set in a field just up the road from Little Lake Sunapee, this Historical Society boasts an entire village with a meetinghouse, blacksmith shop, general store, and more.

Piece by Piece

Led by Maude Swift, the New London Historical Society was founded in 1954 by a group of townspeople eager to preserve their town’s history and historic buildings and educate future generations. They began by collecting memorabilia and documents but took a decided turn in a new direction in the early ’60s, when Mrs. Swift donated one of her many antique houses near Pleasant Lake.

Now known as Elkins, the area at the foot of Pleasant Lake was commonly called Scytheville in the mid 1800s. With waterpower from a series of dams, it was an industrial hub and home to the New London Scythe Company. Mrs. Swift’s 1835 Cape Cod style house had originally been a home for scythe factory employees. Next, a generous donation of open farmland was given to the society, and the house and its foundation were broken down into sections and carefully carted up the hill to the field on Little Sunapee Road. With great attention to detail, volunteers lovingly reconstructed the granite foundation and house. Fully furnished with period pieces, Scytheville House is a wonderful example of restoration and preservation at its best. The society’s first major project set a high standard of excellence for the rest of the village.

After Scytheville House, additional buildings followed. Throughout New London, pieces of the town’s history were dismantled and reassembled on Little Sunapee Road. A few of the buildings are new construction but built according to mid 19th century designs. The Meeting House is modeled after a building in Wayne, Maine. Extreme care was taken to faithfully replicate the design and workmanship.

The Village Scout

If Maude Swift was the godmother of the New London Historical Society, then Laurids “Bud” Lauridsen was the godfather. An antique dealer and restorer, Bud traveled all over New England sweet-talking potential donors, collecting, and learning. His daughter Laurie remembers, “It’s a small town, and there wasn’t a lot to do when we were kids. Among other things, Dad collected old cars. After dinner, we’d hop in the Model A and drive around the back roads. Dad would spot an old building and add it to his list. Later, he’d go back and try to convince the owner to donate it. More often than not, he was successful.” Laurie continues, “We nicknamed him Wheels because he was always on the road. He’d scout out early American collectibles, furniture, coaches, and sleighs. He also made several trips to Old Sturbridge Village. His goal was to create a similar but smaller version, and he wanted to learn as much as he could.”

Thanks to the dedication of Maude, Bud, and the society’s countless volunteers and donors, the village currently includes 14 antique and replica houses and barns. Fulfilling the society’s goals to open a window on the past, to preserve, and to educate, each building is filled with authentic furniture, tools, and decorations. The society’s textile collection is highlighted in Almira’s Parlor. Typical of many rural women, Almira Williams and her mother ran a millinery and fancy goods business out of their parlor. From kitchen tools in the Scytheville House to violins in progress at Claude Goings Violin & Carriage Shop, visitors get a glimpse of life in the mid 1800s. Special exhibits of antique quilts, hooked rugs, or other collections are on display every summer. Board member and docent Debbie Hall loves taking groups through the village. “It’s a wonderful place to learn more than the facts and figures of history. The village teaches us how people in rural New Hampshire actually lived.”

Hands-On History

Her concern over the lack of knowledge and interest in history drove board member and history professor Dr. Sandra LeBeau to join the New London Historical Society. Proficiency in history is at an all-time low, but the village and the society’s special events can put families and children in touch with New London’s past. Sandra explains, “It is a wonderful place for children to explore. Every year the local fourth graders spend a day at the village. They have a lesson in the old schoolhouse, they churn butter, they see the fire engines in action, and they get a taste of 19th century cooking.”

For many, old and young alike, the highlight of the tour is the society’s collection of antique coaches, carriages, and sleighs. This splendid collection is housed in the transportation building. The modern exhibit hall has a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment and enough space to display most of the society’s vehicle collection.

The centerpiece of that collection is the Concord Coach. Built by the Abbott-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire, it had its first run between Hopkinton and Concord in 1874. Later, it brought summer visitors from the railroad station at Potter Place to New London and back again. In addition to the Concord Coach, the collection includes a Gray Line sightseeing stagecoach, fire engines, and New Hampshire Governor Colby’s chaise.

A Labor of Love

The New London Historical Society has no paid employees. President Maggie Ford began volunteering six or seven years ago. When asked about her work with the society, she says, “The village is a real treasure. There is so much to see. It’s very engaging and just draws you in.” She continues, “There are about 70 active volunteers. We give our time as board members, as docents, or on the Tuesday Gang because we want to preserve and share our past. It is truly a labor of love.”

The Tuesday Gang, an all-volunteer crew, takes care of the village. Hank Otto, former board president, coordinates the group. Hank explains, “There is always plenty to do, and you don’t have to be a master carpenter to join the Tuesday Gang. Every week 10 to 15 gentlemen over 60 get together to repair, paint, and sweep as well as set up and take down exhibits. There is always something to do, but there is great camaraderie and we have a lot of fun together.” As an added incentive to potential volunteers, says Hank, “We assign someone to bring muffins every week. Around 10 o’clock, we have a coffee break and a muffin.”

In addition to tours, the society hosts special events and lectures throughout the year. Old Home Day in October and the Holiday Open House in early December are perfect opportunities for a trip to the village. With many demonstrations and activities, people of all ages will enjoy a window on the past and a fun-filled day.

New London resident Susan Nye writes for magazines and newspapers and shares stories and recipes on her blog Around the Table at www.susannye.wordpress.com.

New London Historical Society
Little Sunapee Road (Route 114 North)
(603) 526-6564
Open Sunday afternoons from 12:30 to 3:30 Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day weekend, plus Tuesday afternoons from 12:30 to 3:30 during July and August. Group tours by special arrangement. Selected facilities on the site are available for meetings, weddings, and other events.

Special Events at New London Historical Society

September 17 – Main Street, New London

Take a narrated walk along New London’s upper Main Street, meet characters from New London’s past, and see where they lived and worked. Rain date: September 24.

October 1 – Old Home Day

Celebrate the harvest with a fun day for the entire family with 19th century games, hearthside cooking, weaving, and spinning. Visit the antique carriages and fire equipment, do a little shopping at the general store, and more!

December 4 – Holiday Open House

Kick off the holidays with a step back in time. Enjoy a homegrown small-town holiday with strolling musicians and mini concerts. There are crafts for the kids, cooking, and weaving and spinning demonstrations. Stock up on holiday baked goods at the General Store and get the jump on your Christmas shopping at the silent auction.